For months, Republicans have accused the Obama administration of lying and omitting crucial information about Benghazi. In fact Republicans have done that, by sweeping aside the confusing facts and rumors that swirled on that tragic day. (More)

The Real Benghazi Scandal: Peddling 20/20 Hindsight (Non-Cynical Saturday)

Filmmaker Billy Wilder is credited with the quote “Hindsight is always 20/20,” although the quote is unsourced and may not have originated with him.

It’s also not entirely true. Mystery still swirls around many historical events. Some were not well-documented at the time, like the fire that devastated Montréal today in either 1763 or 1765. For others, important records have been hidden or lost. Playwright Christopher Marlowe was believed to have been killed in a drunken brawl in 1593, until 1925 when a newly discovered coroner’s report revealed a very different story.

Others were documented at the time, but people rejected the official story. The reasons may have little or nothing to do with the evidence, and the speculation (“Lizzie Borden took an axe/And gave her mother forty whacks“) may become better known than the actual verdicts. Borden was acquitted, but she was later suspected to be lesbian and public opinion turned against her.

Add in conspiracy theories, some later proved by evidence, others based on wishful thinking and a need for our chaotic world to make sense, and we find that hindsight is not always 20/20.

“Lying in a fog of uncertainty to greater or lesser extent”

Still, the past is often clearer than the present, especially amidst the stress and chaos of violence. The phrase “fog of war” originated with this quote by Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz:

War is an area of uncertainty; three quarters of the things on which all action in War is based are lying in a fog of uncertainty to a greater or lesser extent. The first thing (needed) here is a fine, piercing mind, to feel out the truth with the measure of its judgment.

Such was the case on September 11, 2012, as armed men attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi at 9:40pm, four hours after protests began outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo. In the ensuing days, similar protests against a film about Islam erupted at U.S. diplomatic posts around the world.

I am not arguing the Benghazi attack was a protest that turned violent. We now know it was a planned attack. But that is 20/20 hindsight. At the time, with protests at U.S. diplomatic posts worldwide, it was not unreasonable to consider that Benghazi might be part of that pattern.

And that’s probably one reason Republicans consistently ignore those other protests when discussing the Benghazi attack. Bringing in those other facts – and they are facts – would muddy their claim that “everyone knew” Benghazi was a terrorist attack.

“Such folk see only one side of a thing”

The parable of the blind men and the elephant is attributed to both Buddhism and Jainism. Regardless of its source, the story is familiar and apropos. Six blind men walk up to an elephant, each touching a different part. They then argue about what they have touched, each insisting that his experience is the full and complete truth. In the Buddhist canon Udana, the parable concludes:

O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.

So it is with Benghazi. It may well be that former Libyan deputy chief of mission Gregory Hicks suspected terrorism almost immediately. Other Americans in Benghazi and Tripoli may have suspected likewise. The terrorists attacking the consulate and its CIA annex certainly knew who they were and what they had planned.

But other Americans in Libya may have suspected otherwise, and Americans in Cairo knew the crowd outside the embassy were, in fact, protesting a film. Halfway around the world, conflicting and confusing information flowed into Washington. Other information, also conflicting and confusing, had been arriving in the weeks and months before the attack. Still more information, also conflicting and confusing, would arrive in the days and weeks after.

Republicans have since sifted through that mountain of conflicting and confusing information for the handful of reports that 20/20 hindsight supports, and they tell the story as if the rest of the conflicting and confusing evidence never existed. Oh, and if the information doesn’t fit their theory, they doctor it.

“Every event as a political event”

Meanwhile, even as the Benghazi consulate was still burning, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney conflated Cairo and Benghazi, criticizing the State Department for a Cairo press release that Romney framed as being part of the mythical Obama Apology Tour. And last week Peggy Noonan breathlessly insisted that “The Obama White House sees every event as a political event. Really, every event, even an attack on a consulate and the killing of an ambassador.”

Political factors clearly weighed in the White House response over the following weeks. But, again, Noonan and Republicans make that argument that in isolation … omitting the fact that Mitt Romney began politicizing Benghazi before the bodies had even been recovered. Like the protests happening in Cairo and elsewhere, and like the confusing and conflicting information flowing into the State Department and CIA, Romney’s shamefully political attack doesn’t fit the Republican story of Obama Lied To Steal An Election.

So Republicans just leave all of those inconvenient facts out of the story, lying by omission while they accuse President Obama of lying by omission. And that’s the real scandal of Benghazi.

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Happy Saturday!